Tag Archives: kedushah

We Can Change the World – Terumah 5778

A rabbi, a priest, an imam, and a Buddhist monk get into a pickup truck and drive to the football stadium to see the Big Game. The rabbi is driving. When they get there, they change from their “work” clothes into the colors of their favorite team, and join a couple of nuns already in the stands, who chide them for being late. The rabbi gestures to the others as if to blame them. Then their team scores! They all jump up and down and hoot and holler.

Some of you may know that this was actually an advertisement for a large Japanese auto manufacturer that ran during the Super Bowl two weeks ago. At the end, before flashing the company’s logo, the slogan, “We’re all one team” appears on-screen.

The ad had two major flaws: one was that, with the exception of the nuns that seem to have been thrown in at the last minute, all of the clergy were male. But even bigger than that, what rabbi drives a pickup truck?!

We’re all one team.

Except when we are not.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of CLAL, who spoke in Pittsburgh nine days ago to a room full of rabbis, priests, and ministers, invoked this ad and reminded us that, well, actually, we are not all one team.

It is fascinating to me that, in this time of great political, racial, and sometimes religious division in our nation, the Madison Avenue ad execs are trying to convince us that we are all one team. Because, at least with respect to the choices that we are making through the democratic process, we are not.

Consider another Super Bowl ad, ironically, for another automotive company that was heavily criticized for misappropriating the words of Dr. Martin Luther King. The people who made that ad were most likely trying to tap into a similar desire of the rabbi-priest-imam-monk ad, that is, our desire to find a rallying point, a connection across racial, ethnic, religious, and political divides in this very fractious moment. And that ad seems to have failed miserably.

The message that Rabbi Hirschfield left us with was, try to consider the other. Try to be a fan, and not a fanatic. We who stand for the rule of law, a shared vision for the betterment of society, and a moderate approach to religion in its integration with contemporary life are all playing the same game, even if we aren’t exactly on the same team; we all agree on the rules.

A little back-story here: I was going to take this sermon in a different direction. I had actually written the rest of this sermon on Tuesday, and it was about what Judaism offers, and why we should be playing on this team.

But then, on Wednesday, a troubled young man with an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle walked into a high school in Parkland, Florida, and began shooting.

We have all witnessed quite a bit of palpable anger, frustration, and grief in these last couple of days. The crying out: how could this have happened once again, and so soon? The throwing up of hands in the air in frustration: will nothing change? The traded accusations, the pointed fingers.

On my social media feed, the ire was directed at politicians, who offered their cliched “thoughts and prayers.” And rightly so. Cynically-offered thoughts and prayers, in place of actual promises of legislative solutions, are useless, and have clearly not brought about any change.

But prayer, if we are acting on it correctly, can in fact help. Our team, the team that actually offers real prayer as a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community, can bring about change. Let me explain how.

For thousands of years, Jews have gathered in synagogues large and small to act on the holy opportunities of prayer: chanting the words of our liturgy, hearing the Torah read, learning together, and so forth. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and other religious groups also gather in their houses of worship for similar services. The content, style, language, features, and of course theology of all these services vary tremendously. But what do they have in common? They bring people together for holy purposes, for the purpose of finding (to use the Hebrew term) kedushah / of seeking holiness.

And when people gather in prayer, they have the potential to change the world.

heschel king torah

The Jewish prayer experience is not meant to be passive. It’s not supposed to be about mumbling ancient words in a language we do not understand. It’s REALLY not supposed to be about waiting for the person up in front to mumble through a page of obscure Hebrew. Rather, it is about having an active mind, of being aware of yourself and your world, of opening up our hearts and minds to the reality of today. It’s about understanding the possibilities of a world that could be, a blueprint for a time without fear and hatred, violence and oppression.

Tefillah / prayer is about resonating with our ancient words. It is a subset of Talmud Torah, the holy opportunity to learn and discuss the words of our tradition. The Talmud asks (Kiddushin 40b):

וכבר היה רבי טרפון וזקנים מסובין בעלית בית נתזה בלוד

?נשאלה שאילה זו בפניהם תלמוד גדול או מעשה גדול

נענה רבי טרפון ואמר מעשה גדול

נענה ר”ע ואמר תלמוד גדול

נענו כולם ואמרו תלמוד גדול שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה

Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were reclining in the loft of the house of Nitza in Lod, when this question was asked of them:

Is study greater or is action greater?

Rabbi Tarfon answered and said: Action is greater.

Rabbi Akiva answered and said: Study is greater.

Everyone answered and said: Study is greater, as study leads to action.

Tefillah, when performed with the proper intention as a form of study, leads to action. And particularly in a house of worship such as this; it turns the potential of people gathered for a holy task into action. It raises us up in kedushah / holiness so that we can go out together and make this world a better place.

And there are concrete examples of the way prayer has changed the world. Consider some of of our team’s greatest victories. Consider the American civil rights movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other clergy. Consider the movement led by Mahatma Mohandas K. Gandhi to free India from British rule. Consider Zionism, led by both secular and religious personalities who drew on the ancient yearning of the Jewish soul to return to Israel. We are living in a time in which gathering for prayer is still effective in bringing about major change.


Prayer / tefillah reminds us of the words of Deuteronomy (30:12),

לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֙יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃

It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”

It is not in the heavens. We write our prayers, we fill them with our emotions and ideas, and we are God’s hands. We are in charge of our destinies here on Earth.

We can change our world. We are not powerless.

Here is where we really ARE on the same team: we, the fans, not the fanatics, we do not want our children to walk into schools in fear. We cannot allow music lovers, or church goers, or people dancing in gay nightclubs to feel that they are not safe. We cannot justify the complacency of politicians in gerrymandered districts who have to answer to nobody but the powerful lobbies who give them money for their next campaign.

And here’s what our team can do: We can change the world. That’s what churches and synagogues and mosques and mandirs and all other houses of faith are for: to bring people together for a holy purpose. And what purpose could be more holy than saving lives?

One of the essential messages of the Purim story, if you look beyond the costumes and the graggers and the drinking and partying, is that Esther saved the Jews of Persia because she spoke up. She was not silent in the face of impending murder.

Now is not the time to be silent. Now IS the time for prayer. And to turn the potential from the prayers of everybody who is on our team, the prayerful team, into action.



Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 2/17/2018.)



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Be a Sanctuary – Terumah 5777

I was in Baltimore last week, at the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly. It was an opportunity to reconnect with colleagues, to learn from each, to share best practices, to daven together and sing together and break bread together.

Perhaps my favorite session from the three-day convention was when we gathered in small groups to share our favorite texts from the Jewish bookshelf. In my group, we had some great pieces, including the classic line about this Jewish month: משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה – Mishenikhnas Adar marbim besimhah – From the time that we enter the month of Adar, our joy increases (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 29a) It’s a statement not only of the joy of Purim (and Lord knows this world needs a little more joy!), but also how the absence of joy makes us appreciate it that much more.

Another colleague spoke about a different piece from the Talmud (Yoma 35b), one that we recently learned as a group at Beth Shalom’s Sulam for Emerging Leaders seminar, about how the great sage Hillel doesn’t have enough money to get into the ancient beit midrash on Friday afternoon to learn the words of our tradition, so he climbs up on the roof and tries to listen through the skylight, and then it snows, and they find him buried in 4 feet of snow on the roof, and light a fire on Shabbat to save him, a gross violation of Shabbat. But the rabbis acknowledge that somebody who wanted so desperately to learn should not have been excluded from the beit midrash, and therefore deserved to have the Shabbat violated on his account.

Good material, indeed.

The piece of text that I cited as my favorite is the one that just keeps coming back to me, over and over, as what you might call a central theme of my work as a rabbi. It’s from Parashat Qedoshim, which we will not read until May.

קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם

Qedoshim tihyu, ki qadosh ani Adonai Eloheikhem

Be holy, because I, your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:2)

If there is one thing that I want every person that I encounter in my work as a rabbi, Jewish, non-Jewish, whatever, to know and understand, it is that we all have the potential to seek qedushah / holiness, to raise the holiness quotient in this very broken world. That joy, learning, synagogues, prayer, singing, bar mitzvah, communal engagement, etc. are all attempts to infuse our lives with holiness, and to remind us that we should zealously seek holiness in all our relationships, and to remind us that there is a spark of the Divine within every single human being.

That is what our tradition is for. That is the lesson that Judaism brings to the world. All the rest, to borrow from another classic piece of text, is commentary. And every other elaboration, every other story or custom or law from our tradition, somehow relates back to that fundamental bottom line of qedushah.

Our bar mitzvah spoke a little earlier about the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that our ancestors used while wandering in the desert to perform the sacrifices commanded by God. Building the mishkan, it seems, was the Israelites’ initial path to qedushah. Right up front, before all the layers upon layers of detail that the Torah gives in order to build this glorified tent, there is a statement about the reason that God commands them to build it:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ, וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם

Ve’asu li miqdash, veshakhanti betokham.

Make me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them. (Ex. 25:8)

Build this sanctuary, says the Qadosh Barukh Hu, the Holy Blessed One, and I’ll come and actually take up residence among you.


Moshe must be thinking, “What? After taking 2,000,000 enslaved people out of Egypt with no army, THIS is what you want me to do?” And the Torah devotes almost as much time and space to describing the mishkan as it does to telling the tale of the Exodus.

But there is a reason for it: this sanctuary is the source of holiness. It was not enough merely to take themselves out of the house of bondage, but rather to seek something higher – to be in holy relationship. And that required building a fancy dwelling-place for God, a place from which Divine blessing and guidance and reassurance and strength would emanate.

Every day, we need to remind ourselves that we draw that strength from the depth and breadth of our tradition, and that ultimately the mishkan, that ancient sanctuary, becomes a metaphor for the dwelling of God’s holy presence among and within us. Just as our bar mitzvah said, courtesy of the Malbim, we each need to build that sanctuary in our hearts.

Every morning at the convention, there were multiple tefillah / prayer options. There was, of course, the “traditional” service, more or less what we do in the weekday morning service here at Beth Shalom. Then there were two non-traditional options: a meditation service and a singing service, where virtually all parts were sung to niggunim. And one morning there was a service led by our colleague Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie in the style of his experimental, floating NYC congregation, LAB/SHUL. It was a vastly abbreviated service, with words projected on a screen, snippets of ordinary weekday tefillot, mixed in with other songs and chants drawn from our tradition.

These are the things the RA is doing now to help Conservative rabbis expand their sources of inspiration for tefillah / prayer: This is where we are today, since there is a disconnect between our traditional form of tefillah and where most Jews are today, a disconnect that mandates our re-imagining how we access God and our tradition. I did meditate one day, but on other days I went to the singing services, and a melody that was repeated endlessly became, it seemed, the unofficial anthem of the convention, drawing on the sanctuary theme of Terumah:

Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary

Pure and holy, tried and true

With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living

Sanctuary for You.

One could read “Ve’asu li miqdash” as, “Build a sanctuary for Me,” which is the traditional reading, or you could read it along the lines of the Malbim: “Turn me into a sanctuary.” Make of me a holy vessel. Make me a vehicle for delivering qedushah to the world.

And there is even more. A little later in Terumah, we read the following (Lev. 25:22):

וְנוֹעַדְתִּי לְךָ שָׁם, וְדִבַּרְתִּי אִתְּךָ מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים אֲשֶׁר עַל-אֲרוֹן הָעֵדֻת–אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּה אוֹתְךָ, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you from above the cover, from between the two keruvim [i.e. cherubim, depictions of angels] that are on top of the Ark of the Pact, all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.

Picture this for a minute. This is a great visual. Look up there, above the aron ha-qodesh. You’ll see the wings of the keruvim, reaching to each other backwards over the top of the Ark of the Covenant.


Right between the wings of the keruvim. That’s where God will meet us and speak to us. That’s the originating point for all the qedushah that comes to us. That is the point of emanation.

But since the mishkan has not been in use for 3,000 years, all we have left is the portable, metaphorical sanctuary within ourselves. And that we have to build.

We have to create the space. We have to stretch ourselves upward and forward like keruvim / angels, so that our wings touch. It’s not so easy to make that magical place where God will dwell within and without us.

So how do we do that? How do we build that inner sanctuary? How do we infuse our lives and the lives of all others around us with holiness?

By heightening our awareness. By listening. By acting on the Jewish values drawn from our tradition: being grateful, humble, compassionate, loving, joyous, greeting everybody with a cheerful face, dedicating ourselves to ridding this world of all forms of persecution, oppression, hatred, bigotry, and fear.

By dedicating ourselves to our community.

By making Jewish ritual our own, so that we can use it to access those moments of qedushah.

By reinforcing the message of radical inclusion into our midst.

By protecting the unprotected.

By seeking peace.

By being sanctuaries. And by offering sanctuary where needed.

By singing together:

Turn yourself into a sanctuary. Make a space for holiness within you and around you.

Shabbat shalom.



Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/4/2017.)


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The Holiness of Being Together – Qedoshim 5776

Last weekend, my family and I were on the first annual Beth Shalom Family Retreat, which was targeted at member families that will be celebrating a bar/bat mitzvah in the coming year or two (that is, with children in the 5th and 6th grade). Altogether, we were 49 people: eleven families (including my own), plus JJEP Director Liron Lipinsky, Youth Director Yasha Rayzberg, and JLine Director Carolyn Gerecht, on loan from the JCC, which also supported the trip with a generous Partner in Teen Engagement grant.

From Friday afternoon until Sunday morning, we were together. We held Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh services together. We dined together. We played together, sang together, went for a nature walk in the woods together, recited the Amidah for Shabbat minhah under a lean-to in the rain together, learned Torah and discussed mitzvot and parenting and the future of Judaism together, and so forth. And, not only this, but we also managed to find some moments of down-time, doing nothing but hanging around and schmoozing and enjoying each other’s company. (We were at Camp Guyasuta, a Boy Scout camp just over the Highland Park Bridge.)

As far as I can tell, it has been a very long time since Beth Shalom has done something like this, if ever. The goals of this retreat were as follows:

  • To connect benei mitzvah families to each other and to their synagogue by creating opportunities to engage with Jewish life together
  • To discuss issues important to families surrounding bat and bar mitzvah, like the meaning of mitzvah, and how we might understand Judaism in relation to our lives today
  • To reinforce the sense that Jewish learning goes on in formal and informal settings
  • To create a sense of continuity in Jewish education before and after benei mitzvah
  • To promote post-benei mitzvah opportunities for Jewish learning, particularly JLine
  • To give the participants a traditional Shabbat experience
  • To expose them to Jewish learning in age cohorts as well as inter-generational
  • To break down social boundaries between children in day school and those in supplementary religious school (about half of our families were JJEP, and half were CDS)

And, of course, the overarching goal amidst all of this was for everybody to come away thinking, “That was awesome.” To create positive memories of Jewish involvement, of Shabbat, of Beth Shalom, and so forth.

And I think that we achieved all of those goals.

Perhaps one of the most telling pieces of feedback that we received, when we solicited the participants for reactions to the weekend, was that it was a pleasure for these families to spend time together, in simple surroundings, not watching the clock (well, they weren’t, but I can assure you that we, the staff, were), enjoying the qedushah, holiness of Shabbat, and the time that we spent together.

Parashat Qedoshim, which is really one of my handful of favorite parashiyyot (and not just because it happens to be my bar mitzvah parashah), is notable for many reasons. It features a portion of the book of Leviticus known as “the Holiness Code,” an echo of the Decalogue, aka the Ten Commandments. But the mitzvot included here are more about interpersonal holiness then the Decalogue (i.e. 10 commandments) . While the passage in Exodus speaks of the big commandments, not killing, stealing, coveting, etc., stated in the cold abstract, the Holiness Code tends to speak about mitzvot in the context of human relationships.

Just a few examples: judging people fairly (Lev. 19:15), not bearing a grudge (19:18), leaving portions of one’s field and produce for the poor among us (19:9-10). And while the Decalogue says simply, Lo tignov / do not steal (Ex. 20:13), Parashat Qedoshim says, Lo ta’ashoq et rai’akha, do not defraud your fellow; do not commit robbery, and do not keep the wages of a day laborer overnight. (Lev. 19:14), all forms of theft, but continually referring back to the other.

And the effect is that these statements in Qedoshim are much more human. They are about the people we love, the people we work with or employ, the people who live next door, the people we encounter in the marketplace or gleaning sheaves of wheat in the field. The mitzvot of the Holiness Code are as much about the people as they are about the actions.

When I read this parashah, I think about society. I think about making a human environment in which people understand and appreciate the others around them, and about how we see ourselves through the lens that focuses on the other.

The reason that retreats work well is because they take us all out of our regular environment, the context of all the craziness and busy-ness that fills our lives: sports leagues, playdates, homework, texting, ballet lessons, saxophone lessons, math lessons, cleaning, shopping, fixing the house, and so forth. Because all 49 of us were in such close quarters, with limited options and no appointments and no constant interruption, we were simply able to enjoy Shabbat, and each other’s company. Adults schmoozed while kids played nearby. It was blissful. And then there were s’mores.

What you can easily create in a 40-hour retreat that is much harder to create in, say, the synagogue, is the sense of togetherness. This is a good feeling, one to which we used to be accustomed. Today, the sense of togetherness often seems quaint, because each of us is so wrapped up in doing our own thing, getting through our own to-do list, dealing with our own problems.

We are living in a zealously independent age. Unlike our ancestors, most of whom lived in poor, cramped environments in which (a) you had to depend on others for help, and (b) you could not avoid sharing space and food and life with other people. Today we live far more comfortable and isolated lives. If we want to shut ourselves off from others, we can. Given the digital innovations of today, it’s not hard to go through life without actually speaking to anybody, let alone relying on them for all manner of assistance.

We are all, in the words of sociologist Robert Putnam, bowling alone. There are more single people today, on a percentage basis, than there have ever been in history. There are fewer bridge games and adult softball leagues. All forms of civic engagement are down, from voting to going to club meetings to, of course, membership in synagogues and churches. The “social capital” (Putnam’s term) that once infused American life, drawing people together, has diminished dramatically in the past half-century, and nobody knows why.

But qedushah, holiness, flows not only from our relationship with God, but also through our relationships with each other. Why do we require minyan, a quorum of 10 people for services and for weddings? Why do we build synagogues (batei kenesset, houses of gathering) for group prayer and learning and socializing? Why do we call 13-year-olds to the Torah in front of the entire community? Why do we have rituals to mark any lifecycle event in synagogues?  Why do we publicly mark the passing of our beloved friends and relatives multiple times a year as a community with Yizkor? Because community is the essence of what it means to be Jewish. And our sense of qedushah flows through that gathering together.

Togetherness yields holiness. And we need more of both.

So how do we achieve togetherness? We have to make room for it in multiple dimensions: time, space, in our minds and hearts.  We have to set aside a piece of our lives to be with other people.

Convincing ten families to come with us on this retreat was the hard part; people had to accept that they would be giving up a whole lot of other things to commit to this. But when they came to the end, the participants appreciated the value of setting aside that time for the pursuit of holiness in being together.

Communicating with friends and family with your electronic devices does not satisfy this need for togetherness. Texting, WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook, etc. may keep you informed (perhaps too much so!), but they do not create the feeling that human contact creates. And they certainly do not allow us to be fully present, enjoying personal moments with others.

You have heard me speak many times over the last nine months in various ways about re-thinking what we do here at Beth Shalom, re-orienting our relationship with Judaism to be more engaging, more connective. The retreat is just one way of doing this. I think we need more retreats, organized by cohort: empty nesters, families with young children, seniors, singles, and so forth. But we also need to create other opportunities for people to gather and satisfy that human need for togetherness: the trip to Israel, the social action project, the discussion group for parents, the kosher wine tasting night, and so forth.

We have grown accustomed to “Jewish” being something that we do when in the synagogue. But it’s not at all. On the contrary: Judaism should infuse our lives with holiness. Not just for the few minutes that we are gathered here. Not just for the six-and-a-half hours per week that our children spend in Hebrew school. Not just for the moments that we celebrate or grieve at lifecycle events.

Rather, every interaction we have with friends, family, strangers, loved ones should be marked by a reminder that our relationships are holy, that God expects us to uphold that holiness with everybody. And that is the whole point of the Holiness Code of Parashat Qedoshim. And it is also the whole point of seeking qedushah / holiness through togetherness. And that’s why we took a retreat last weekend.

I hope you’ll be on the next one. Shabbat shalom!



Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/14/2016.)

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Heart and Mind Balance: Changing Our Understanding of the Synagogue – Yom Kippur Day, 5776

There is a wonderful story about the rabbi who is greeting congregants after services on Yom Kippur. He sees Mr. Goldstein, and realizes that he has not seen him for a full year.

Hayyim,” says the rabbi, “Are you in the army of God?”

“Of course, Rabbi,” says Mr. Goldstein.

“Then how come I only see you once a year?”

Mr. Goldstein leans in close and whispers, “Rabbi, I’m in the secret service!”


There is a verse from the Torah that we customarily say every time we enter a synagogue, and many of us are familiar with it (Numbers 24:5):

מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל.

Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov, mishkenotekha Yisrael

How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel!

The words come from the mouth of the non-Israelite prophet Bil’am, sent by the Moabite king Balaq to curse the Israelites. What comes from his mouth, however, are not curses, but rather blessings. The rabbis of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 105b) interpret this line to speak of the two poles of Jewish life. Bil’am’s blessing says that the Jews will always have batei kenesset (synagogues: places where Jews have traditionally prayed) and batei midrash (traditional study halls, where Jews have learned the ancient words of our tradition). They read ohalekha = your tents = synagogues and mishkenotekha = your dwelling places = batei midrash.

That’s why Mah Tovu is the first thing in the siddur. That’s why we say it when we enter a synagogue, to recall that even as we lost the Temple in Jerusalem and were exiled and faced so many challenges in Diaspora, we could always count on this blessing.

Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, also known as the Slonimer Rebbe, saw this verse as the key to Jewish survival throughout the centuries. We are drawn near to our tradition by Bil’am’s blessing: The synagogue speaks to the heart and the beit midrash speaks to the mind. These two places are the essential points of qesher / connection in Jewish life. They have kept us Jewish for two thousand years after we should have disappeared, after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70 CE. That is why we need both. We need to engage both the heart and mind.

Before we go any further, however, I just have to make sure we all know what I mean by beit midrash. Both the beit kenesset and the beit midrash emerged in antiquity, but they developed separately and are identified in the Talmud as separate places. We all know the synagogue. But most contemporary Jews, and probably the vast majority of Jews throughout history, have not been in a beit midrash.

Picture a bunch of Jews seated around tables, heavy books open in front of them, reading, discussing, or indeed arguing, mostly in pairs, around the room. The walls are lined with books – sets of the Talmud, rabbinic commentaries on the Torah, collections of midrash, texts and translations, dictionaries, the tools of textual study. Some are deep in thought. Some sway in concentration. Some schmooze with each other and laugh. That’s a traditional beit midrash.

You may recall that I have spoken over these holidays now for three times about the three qofs: qesher, qehillah, and qedushah, also known as connection, community, and holiness. But today I’d like to add something to it: Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov. Heart and mind.

A synagogue is a place where we make connections with each other and with God, where we build and engage with our community, and where we seek qedushah, holiness and holy moments. However, it is not meant to be only a beit kenesset, a place of gathering for prayer, but it should also serve as a beit midrash, a place of learning. The needs of the contemporary Jewish world require the synagogue to be both.

The synagogue is meant to be a place where we express emotion, of openness, of expressing our vulnerability. I have literally held the hands of fellow Jews as they cried in synagogue, as they grieved for lost loved ones, as they took an inventory of their lives and came up wanting. That’s what this place is for. It’s about love and yearning, as I spoke about last night. It’s about the ritual framework that supports us in our times of need, and helps us achieve exultant highs in our times of joy.

heartWe don’t have too many spaces like this in our society any more. Those of you who heard me speak in August about the future of the Conservative movement might recall that I mentioned the sociologist Robert Putnam, who documents the decline of interconnectedness in our society in his book, Bowling Alone. Putnam points to the disappearance of social societies (the Elks, the Shriners, Hadassah) and bridge clubs and bowling leagues and even couples dining out together to show that we have less and less social capital, that is, connections with each other, than we did in the middle of the 20th century. This is not healthy for a whole bunch of reasons.

But Putnam does point out that houses of worship still offer social capital in spades. You meet people at services, you kibbitz at kiddush, you celebrate together and grieve together and talk and learn and sing in synagogue.

This building makes our world a better place, and it functions by helping us connect to our emotions. The synagogue resides in the heart.

But the beit midrash is all about the mind. It’s about logic and deduction, about puzzling through ancient language and situations that are as resonant today as they were two millennia ago, because we continue to apply them to how we live here and now. It is a place where we connect to each other through the shared joy of the quintessentially Jewish pursuit of textual learning, and we unlock the qedushah found within the words of our ancient scholars. As Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, professor of Talmud and chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is known to have said, “When I pray, I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.”

mindLearning the words of our tradition is, according to the Mishnah (Pe’ah 1:1), the highest mitzvah in Jewish life. Higher than keeping Shabbat and kashrut. Much more important than fasting on Yom Kippur. That is why the beit midrash is so essential to Jewish life. Talmud Torah keneged kulam. The study of Torah, says the Mishnah, weighs more than all of the other mitzvot combined.

And so our tents and our dwelling places, the beit kenesset and the beit midrash, are the places that connect us to each other and to God. These are the places where connection, community, and qedushah are quite literally fashioned.

And today, for us, they have to be the same building. This synagogue must be for the heart and the mind. It must be a beit kenesset and a beit midrash, because the Jewish world needs both.

But it took me a while to figure that out.


More than eight years ago, when I graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary as a newly-minted rabbi, I was under the impression that the most important thing for a rabbi to exercise was the mind. In the seven years that I spent there, I put a sizeable spike on my knowledge curve in the area of Torah, halakhah, Jewish history, ritual, critical approaches to the Tanakh, etc. All very heady stuff, gleaned from old, dusty books.

It took me several years thereafter to understand that while it is impressive to appeal to the mind, the appeal to the heart is much more valuable, much more welcome, and much more likely to inspire people (i.e. you). I can give the most sophisticated, deep, self-impressed reading of Torah verses, and it might be greeted with a shrug at kiddush. But I have found that when I demonstrate that the Torah can be interpreted to help us live better lives as Jews and as people, I find that the message is far more likely to be heard, understood, and appreciated.

So, for example, it seems that when thinking about Yom Kippur, we usually consider its mechanical aspects: fasting for no less than 25 hours, not bathing, repenting by reciting the standard language in the mahzor with the traditional melodies, confessing our sins, striking our hearts, blowing the shofar at 7:58 PM, and so forth.

But we should also consider that this is a time to acknowledge that we are broken, and that we are yearning for wholeness. Nobody here among us is perfect; we all come to Yom Kippur with something in our hearts that needs to be cleansed. As I said last night, we yearn for closeness with God, for mending our relationships, for spiritual purity. These are ideas which flow from the heart.

Consider this for a moment: the public confessional prayers, the Viddui, are recited 12 times over the course of this day. Six times in the silent Amidah, wherein we confess our sins to ourselves, and six times out loud, in public, led by the sheliah tzibbur / the congregational emissary who leads us in prayer. And every single time it is in first person plural: we have transgressed, we have cheated, we have stolen; for the sins we have sinned against You by qalut rosh / superficiality, or by qashyut oref / being stiff-necked, and so forth.

Think about that: we are standing in public, confessing to a whole litany of deplorable behaviors. Doesn’t matter if we have done them or not. We are all stating, to ourselves AND out loud, that we are broken. How powerful is it that Jewish tradition asks us to do so! How therapeutic!

(There is a nice custom to go with this, by the way: we all know that we strike our chests. But something else you can do during the confessional is lean over a bit; hang your head in shame. We should not be proud of having transgressed. We should not be standing upright. We should be a little hunched over.)

That picture of Yom Kippur, going beyond the mechanics of the day to connect our tradition with how we live now, is an appeal to the heart. And that is far more attractive to all of us then the most well-executed midrashic analysis that is delivered entirely divorced from the realities of our lives. The Torah is meant to teach us lessons about how to live better, not to be analyzed dispassionately in slices arrayed on sterile glass slides.

And yet, it seems to me that what works best in the Jewish world is when the heart and mind are in balance. In parallel, just like in the verse: Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov, mishkenotekha Yisrael.

To uncover the love in Judaism, you have to dig deep into Jewish text. You have to go back to the mind.

When we study Torah, we acknowledge that there are shiv’im panim latorah, seventy faces to the Torah, that is, seventy ways (at least) of understanding every passage, every word, every story, every mitzvah, and so forth. (OK, so maybe not seventy, but that’s just rabbinic-speak for “a whole bunch.”)

There are many ways of understanding our foundational text, and the way we approach this text, referred to rabbinically as “Talmud Torah,” we must take as axiomatic the idea that no single approach is the lone correct understanding. Talmud Torah includes the seventy faces. And among those faces are those of the heart and those of the mind.

When we study Torah, we should not merely ask, “What does this mean?” but we should also ask, “What does this mean to us?” And this takes a whole lot more work. The standard commentators on the Torah that some of us know (Rashi, Ramban, ibn Ezra, etc.) usually try to resolve issues within the text by working through the challenging language. Midrash, stories written to fill in the gaps of the Torah, seeks to humanize the text by completing it. And Hasidic tales tend to go even further by seeking the personal angle – how might we learn from this to emulate the acts of piety and selflessness of which Hasidic lore often speaks.

There are many ways to find answers to the question of “What does this mean to us?” Talmud Torah for the modern audience has to hit us where we live: to answer questions like this:

  • What do I want my children to learn about life?
  • How do I make a difference in this world?
  • How do I balance my commitment to my family with my work obligations?
  • How do I improve myself?
  • Why is this world so much more complex than it used to be, and how do I navigate the complexity?

And so forth.

These are all essential questions that we might often overlook if they are not staring us in the face. And that’s why the highest mitzvah in Jewish life is Talmud Torah. You can light all the Hanukkah candles you want; you can daven with passion while fasting on Yom Kippur; you can gorge yourself on matzah and sit in the Sukkah and make sure your boys are circumcized and your doorposts have mezuzot and on and on, but until you commit to learning the precious words of the Jewish bookshelf, you cannot fully appreciate the richness and value of our tradition. When I pray, I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.

In an ideal synagogue, the one that we are building here at 5915 Beacon St., we will strike the proper balance between heart and mind. We will not only pray, ask for forgiveness, seek teshuvah / repentance, rejoice and mourn, but we will also learn the words of our tradition and what they mean to us. We will be both a beit kenesset and a beit midrash.

I have taken that journey from the mind to the heart and back again. And you can too. But it requires entering the Jewish study hall, that part of the synagogue devoted to lifelong Jewish learning. We will all have to dig deeper. You need both the heart and the mind to sustain that qesher, that connection with our tradition.

So – I know you’re waiting for this now – what’s the action item, Rabbi?

I would like you to seriously consider one simple question, a question that I hope will help you re-envision your entire understanding of Judaism and of the role of the synagogue. This is a kind of a self-test:

“How has your relationship with Judaism changed in the last ten years?” Judaism – the set of rituals and texts and customs that make up our tradition. Not the cultural trappings: the foods, the institutions, the cool Jewish sites you saw on vacation in Spain.

If you search very deeply and your answer is, “It hasn’t,” then we have some work to do, to engage your heart and mind. Give me a call, shoot me an email, message me on Facebook; I would love to meet up and talk about it.

If you can come up with a whole litany of things you have learned and practices you have adopted and books you have read and holy moments you have experienced, and ways you have applied values from our tradition to your life, then we still have some work to do, because Judaism is a lifetime of learning.

Talmud Torah keneged kulam. Keep learning, and asking “What does this mean to us?” It is high on my agenda here at Beth Shalom to move this congregation forward, and that will require a little more beit kenesset and beit midrash. Unlike Hayyim, who is in the “secret service,” I hope you will join me as we focus on both the heart and the mind, and we continue our collective journey in search of connection, community, and qedushah, holiness.

Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov, mishkenotekha Yisrael.


Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur, 9/23/15.)

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A Night of Yearning – Kol Nidrei 5776

Goldie Cohen, an elderly Jewish woman from New York, goes to her travel agent. “I vont to go to India.”

“Mrs. Cohen, why India? It’s much hotter than New York, and crowded, and not for the faint of heart.”

“I vont to go to India.”

“But it’s a long journey, how will you manage? What will you eat? The food is too hot and spicy for you. You can’t drink the water or eat fresh fruit and vegetables. You’ll get sick.  And can you imagine the hospital, no Jewish doctors?”

“I vont to go to India.”

The necessary arrangements are made, and off she goes. She arrives in India and, undeterred by the noise and crowds, makes her way to an ashram. There she joins the long line of people waiting for an audience with the guru. She is told that it will take at least three days of standing in line to see the guru.

“Dats OK,” Goldie says.

Eventually she reaches the guru’s entryway. There she is told firmly that she can only say three words.

“Fine,” she says.

She is ushered into the inner sanctum where the guru is seated.  As she approaches him, she is reminded: “Remember, just three words.”

Unlike the other devotees, she does not prostrate at his feet. She stands directly in front of him, folds her arms on her chest, fixes her gaze on his, and says: “Shmuel, come home.”


There is a great tradition of Jews who have sought spiritual fulfillment in other traditions, particularly those of the East. We are a people who yearn for connection, and our rich, ancient tradition is often perceived to be insufficient, or perhaps merely impenetrable to satisfy some of us. Author Rodger Kamenetz wrote about these people, whom some call “JuBus,” Jewish Buddhists, in his book about the Jewish delegation that went to see the Dalai Lama in 1990, The Jew in the Lotus. (I think the Shmuel of the story actually appears in the book, perhaps under a different name.)

And yet, we have in our tradition, which is vast and deep and thoughtful and complex, all of the spiritual tools to provide that nourishment, that sense of qedushah*.

The irony, it seems, is that many of us do not appreciate the range of offerings our tradition has. Many of us have confined Judaism to a box that contains Hanukkah candles, bagels, Yiddish-accented humor, and a whole lot of mumbling in a language that nobody can understand (and takes hours).  Hence the need to seek elsewhere for spiritual satisfaction.

A synagogue is not just a place to daven / pray. It is not merely a place where you can interact with God. You can talk to God, or listen for God’s voice anywhere.

Rather, a synagogue is a beit kenesset, a place of gathering. It’s our communal home. It’s a place that is designed for Jews to come together, whether for ritual, social, educational, spiritual, or organizational reasons. The English word “synagogue” is a direct translation of the Hebrew beit kenesset: “syn” = together, “gog” = place. Each of us should think of this place as an annex of our home, a third place (home, work, synagogue) whose doors are always open. We’re here for you. Not just me and the staff, but your community. We’re here. Gather with us.

This is a place of the three qofs: qesher, qehillah, qedushah*. Connection, community, and holiness.

The real reason that you are here tonight is because of the three qofs. You need to be counted as part of the qehillah, to be with your people, to connect with others who are here, to reach out and grab just a wee bit of qedushah, holiness. It’s not about Kol Nidrei, per se. This is a night of yearning. Yearning for these three things, which most of us are not even aware that we need.

Judaism does not really have intrinsically holy places or objects. Qedushah is a little more elusive than that. I know that runs counter to what many of us have been taught. The beit kenesset / synagogue?  We make it holy with our presence. The Sefer Torah? “Holy” books? We endow them with holiness when we use them. The Kotel? Har HaBayit / the Temple Mount? While there is a tremendous sentimental value to those ancient rocks, the prevailing opinion is that when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, the Shekhinah, God’s presence, departed. Like a beit kenesset, we make those items and locations holy when pray, celebrate, weep, and yearn with them or at them.

It’s not the tangible things in Judaism that are holy. It’s time. We sanctify time. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously described Shabbat as “a palace in time.” We mark holy moments. We resonate together at Kol Nidrei, at Ne’ilah, at joyous and mournful lifecycle events. The high points within Judaism are moments in time, moments marked by qedushah / holiness. It’s not the stained-glass windows; it’s the moment.

That is why the Jewish calendar is so much more complicated than the Gregorian calendar** – because we care very deeply about the sanctification of time. Time is much more valuable than any physical thing.

And the older I get, the more I appreciate the value of time, and the more I understand that I have to try to fill as much of my time with as much qedushah / holiness as possible.

We all want a little holiness in our lives. But we do not always know how to find it.

I have good news for you. The real action is right here, right now. Tonight is the night to get a little taste of holiness, when the gates of heaven are truly open. It’s the most powerful night of the Jewish year, this night of yearning.

All it takes to make it happen is for you to open up, to allow that yearning to surface.

الموضوع: أشواقنــا ؟

But that’s not so easy.

I spoke on Rosh Hashanah about how the shofar opens us up, breaks through our tough exterior to reveal our internal radiance. But Yom Kippur works a little differently.

It is a unique day for many reasons:

  • It is described in the Torah as Shabbat Shabbaton – the Sabbath of Sabbaths – the only day in the Jewish calendar more holy than Shabbat
  • This is the only evening of the year when we wear a tallit
  • We never actually conclude any service until the very end; it’s as if we are in prayer all day, the full 25 hours
  • We are supposed to “afflict our souls” on this day. Not necessarily the body, but the soul. (Don’t confuse the two!)
  • We wear white (as I suggested on Rosh Hashanah) to suggest the purity for which we yearn
  • This day is both weighty and joyous: historically, a happy day on which young women went out into the fields looking for husbands (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:4)

The very singularity of this day, its uniqueness, point to one thing: that we are all united today. That Benei Yisrael, all of the descendants of Jacob and Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah, stand together on Yom Kippur.

One commentator to address the nature of Yom Kippur was Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the late 19th-century head of the Ger Hasidic court, often known by the name of his major work, the Sefat Emet (or Sefas Emes, depending on your perspective). The Sefat Emet took note of the rabbinic explanation that Yom Kippur is the day when Moshe brought down the second set of tablets from Mt. Sinai. This is, of course, after the first set was broken because the Israelites had built an idol, a calf made from melting down their jewelry.

The molten calf (although we often refer to it as the “golden calf,” “molten” is the translation of the Hebrew, “egel masekhah,” the term the Torah uses to describe it in Exodus 32) is the closest thing that Judaism has to the Christian concept of “original sin.” (We do not see people as fundamentally sinful – everybody is born with a clean slate, and every Yom Kippur we have the ability to wipe that slate clean again.)

Ancient interpreters understood the molten calf as having inspired a cascading effect that compelled the Israelites to perform a wide range of bad things, from sexual indiscretion to murder to sin’at hinnam, causeless hatred.

And so, when Moshe returns on Yom Kippur with the second set of tablets, the Israelites had many transgressions for which to atone. Yes, avodah zarah / idol worship was high on the list. But also the relationships between the people had been broken through these sins. They were in need of interpersonal repair; they needed to stand together, to achieve wholeness once again as a qehillah, a community.

And so too today. The Sefat Emet tells us that on Yom Kippur, we seek to recover wholeness as a community – mercy for one another, acts of hesed, the sense of ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha / love your neighbor as yourself. When we seek those things, we recapture the qedushah / holiness of the moment when Moshe comes down with the second set of tablets. Then we can re-activate the Torah within us; we regain that clean slate; we start fresh on a new path for the new year.

That is why we are here tonight: to restore a sense of who we are as a community – what connects us to each other, what values unite us, how we live the words of our tradition from day to day.

And for the entire day, from Kol Nidrei until the final teqi’ah gedolah, we yearn for that unity, that wholeness. We yearn to be restored as a qehillah.


I have been overwhelmed with many emotions since meeting you all for the first time back in February. This is a congregation with tremendous history. We are very nearly 100 years old. A whole century. There are not too many congregations in America that can claim that sort of lifespan.

And over the arc of the last century, the fortunes of this congregation have risen and fallen. But you know what? The reason that Judy let me apply here (in our house, the rebbetzin wears the pants!) is that we saw readily that this congregation has wonderful potential; it has all the features that we were looking for in a qehillah:

  • Many, many volunteers. The level of personal involvement here is very impressive. There are a lot of you who care very strongly about Beth Shalom, and are willing to put in personal time and energy to help make it better
  • Very knowledgeable active core of members
  • Not just a number of young families, but a bunch of actively-involved young families. This core will inevitably attract more.
  • Day school nearby that is integral to the community.
  • Unique and vibrant JJEP religious school
  • Tight-knit, urban setting
  • Healthy daily minyan
  • Enthusiasm. Judy and I have been overwhelmed with how excited people are about Pittsburgh, about Beth Shalom, about our joining this community.
  • It is part of a wider community that is a shining beacon of Jewish pluralism and togetherness (very different from the New York area, BTW) Jewish Pittsburgh is indeed a unique community.

All of the ingredients are here for a shining future. We – you and me – are going to make it happen. We are going to make this congregation not what it was, but what it can be.

There is so much here to be proud of; so much to celebrate, so much to be inspired by and to be hopeful for.

And, given that the Sefat Emet tells us that this is a night of unity, Yom Kippur 5776 should be a powerful reminder of the task before us. We must see ourselves as united to move forward, and willing to do the following:

  • Be more open: open to outsiders; open to people from across the religious and social spectrum; open to new ideas and new methods of engagement; open to all the variations on the contemporary Jewish family
  • To have a sense of togetherness, that we are all on the same side
  • To have a sense of purpose – that we have a shared mission upheld by Jewish values writ large and Conservative Jewish values in particular.

Those are all attitudinal points. In terms of what we offer, I think we should have:

  • More engaging services.
  • More music, both vocal and instrumental.
  • More provocative speakers.
  • More social action activities.

And all of these have to be reinforced by what I think is the most valuable thing that Jewish communities should be doing today: More small-group experiences.

While the Judaism of our parents and grandparents was buoyed by the dramatic feeling of classically beautiful services in huge, ornate rooms and featuring fiery rabbinic oratory, most Jews are not looking for these experiences today. What most of us are looking for in this isolated, impersonal world is more intimate, more personally meaningful interactions with other people like us. We are looking to sanctify those holy moments in ways that are familiar and amiable.

I am going to pause from all this envisioning for a moment to suggest that on this eve of Yom Kippur, on this holiest of holy moments, we ask ourselves a crucial question. It seems that there is something for which we must, as a united community, request forgiveness, something for which we must seek teshuvah / repentance.

I am told that there are many people who left this congregation or are still angry because members of this community spoke to them in a way that was inappropriate (or mean, or nasty). So it is extremely important that we ask ourselves if we are indeed repentant. Have we changed the way we speak to each other?

Have we spoken ill of any of our fellow congregants, whether in private or in public? Have we gossiped?  Have we exchanged harsh words or spoken with a lack of respect within or without these walls?  We cannot truly heal ourselves as a qehillah qedoshah / holy community, we cannot move forward if we do not resolve to treat and speak to each other with only the highest respect.

And so, looping back to Shmuel, or anybody else who has not yet found their entree into a fulfilling Jewish life, I hope that together we will find ways to present our very rich heritage of learning, values and culture by reaching out through affinity groups, by capitalizing on our own internal social networks. We will thereby draw more of us into the center from the periphery.

In the mean time, let our yearning this evening translate to action. Let our desire for the future of Beth Shalom, un-clouded by the uncertainties of the past, drive us to fashion a new type of congregation, where more of us are involved on a more regular basis through a new set of entry points.

Here is the action item: Find some way to participate. Volunteer to help out. Come to our adult ed offerings. Learn something new so you can participate in parts of services. Brainstorm new programs or ways to engage others. Donate your time or your funds (or both). Come to the parlor meetings that we will be hosting through the coming year to discuss all of these things.

We are going to build. And for that we need you. We need you to seek connection, community, and qedushah here, among your people.

Tonight we yearn for that rosy future; on this night next year, we will be well on the way to building it. Let’s stand together to bring Shmuel, and all the other Shmuels, back home.

* Apologies if the “q” seems strange. One way of representing the Hebrew letter ק (qof) in English transliteration is q, because (as you can readily see if you look at them right next to each other) the Latin q is actually related to the Hebrew ק. (The Latin “k” comes from the Hebrew כ (kaf).) By transliterating this way, it helps English speakers learn or remember the Hebrew spelling of the transliterated word.

** How much more complicated? I can’t even begin to explain. Just trust me on this.


Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Leil Yom HaKippurim, 9/22/15.)

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One Jewish Boy’s Story and Three Qofs – Day 1 Rosh Hashanah 5776

Shanah tovah! It’s truly a pleasure and an honor to stand before you here today. I am truly feeling at this moment the spirit of “Hayom Harat Olam.” Today the world is born. It’s a new world for me and Judy and the kids. We are overjoyed to be here in Pittsburgh.

I am going to start off in a sort of unorthodox way (which is completely OK, ‘cause I’m not an Orthodox rabbi…). We all need to get to know each other, and there is only one of me and whole lot of you, so I am hoping that you are willing to cut me some slack, at least for the first few years.

So in pursuit of getting to know each other, I’m going to tell you a story. A true story. But first, I have to lay something out for you that you might find a little unpleasant, an important fact about me that I have hidden from you up until right now:

I know next to nothing about sports. More to the point, I know virtually nothing about the Pittsburgh teams. What I do know, I know about baseball, and most of that is from the late 1970s, when I was collecting baseball cards. (The good news is that 1979 was my first summer at a sleepaway camp, and I remember the Pirates of that year, the summer of “We Are Family,” the gay ‘90s caps. But other than that and a vague notion of who Roberto Clemente was, I’ve got nothin’.)

Prior to consulting with Rabbi Google two weeks ago, I couldn’t name a single Steelers quarterback. And the Penguins? As they say in Brooklyn, fagettaboutit.

So we’re all going to have work a little harder to get to know each other. I’ll try to become familiar with the current teams, but I must admit that I have a pretty long to-do list right now, so I’m not optimistic. Meanwhile, we’re going to have to work with other material. So now that that is out of the way, let me tell you a story.  The story of a boy and 3 qofs*.

Once upon a time there was a Jewish boy, who lived in a small town in the Berkshires, in Western Massachusetts. He and his family were very committed to their Conservative synagogue, which was 20 miles away from their home. They spent a lot of time on the road, driving back and forth to synagogue for Hebrew school, for Shabbat morning services, for special events and speakers and classes and semahot and so forth.

This boy loved his synagogue community. He felt very much an integral part of it, and after his bar mitzvah continued in Hebrew High School, read Torah regularly, led services regularly, helped build and decorate the sukkah, led Junior congregation, was a music teacher in the Hebrew school, and so forth. He went to Israel during the summer before his senior year in high school, and felt even more strongly connected to his people.

And then something happened. He left to go to university to study engineering. And he did not have the same qesher*, the same connection with the other Jewish students he met there. He drifted away from them, and away from his qehillah*, his Jewish community, and away from Jewish life. (Ironically, in this time, he also became a vegetarian, mostly because he could not get kosher meat.)

But then something stranger happened: he went even further away from home to go to graduate school, also in engineering, at a huge university in a far-away place, where  there were only a handful of Jewish people like him. And he discovered that he needed qehillah, community, and that he needed qesher, personal connection. And so he re-entered Jewish life.

Eventually, this 20-something engineer had to find a job. So he did. And meanwhile, he maintained his connection / qesher, and joined a community / qehillah or two. He taught Hebrew school again, led a Jewish youth group, sang in a synagogue choir, read more Torah, and even learned to lead parts of High Holiday services. And went to work, where he helped build things. Big things: chemical plants, refineries, and parts thereof. But something was missing.

One Sukkot, our young Jewish man, now almost finished with his 20s, was sitting in his cantor’s sukkah. And the cantor said something like this: “Look, I know you don’t love your work as an engineer. And I know you love Judaism and love to sing. Why don’t you consider going to cantorial school?”

The young man had never thought about that. But after lots of reflection, he began to think that it might address the problem of “something missing.” So, taking stock of his life, he took the next appropriate step: he moved to Israel, to the desert town of Arad, to clear his head, to learn Hebrew, and to reflect, just as the Israelite prophets always did in the Judean hills.

After some contemplation, some hiking in the desert, and a whole lot of falafel, he realized that what was missing was qedushah, holiness, and so he decided to make qedushah a career. And he enrolled in cantorial school.

After 4 years of study he became a hazzan.  But he was reveling in the qedushah so much he decided to remain a few more at the Jewish Theological Seminary to become a rabbi as well.

And that is the story of how I came to stand before you today, this day on which the world was born. I am proud to say that I have built my rabbinate around these three qofs, these three ideas: qesher / connection, qehillah / community, and qedushah / holiness.  My greatest desire is to help others to find their paths into these three things, and with all the excitement and anticipation that comes with starting a new position, I hope to take these principles to a whole new level.


Together, ladies and gentlemen, we are going to be partners. We are going to build that qehillah that brings qesher and qedushah to all who enter. And all the more so, we are going to reach out beyond these walls to bring all three of those things to those who don’t yet know they need them.

This won’t be easy. It will require love. Love of everybody. Love of all humanity.

It will also require resources, energy, and people.

And that’s where you come in. The first step is to build qesher between all of us. And we have to start with the fundamentals: the sharing of stories. I have just told you one of my stories, and I have many more to share .And each of you has many stories as well, stories that define who you are, that have the potential to connect you to everybody else here.

What makes a community function well, ladies and gentlemen, is that we feel interconnected. And one of my primary goals during my first year here is to build connections. Many of you are already connected to each other, I know. Even for three and four generations. But that’s not enough. We have to reach higher. If we are going to make this truly a qehillah qedoshah, a community bound together in holiness, a community that is so inspiring that others will want to join or participate in more fully, we have to be even more interconnected. We have to raise our qesher quotient, our QQ, if you will.

I have already begun this process. I have met with a few small groups already to get the ball rolling in raising that qesher quotient. Throughout this year, every single person in this room will be invited to a parlor meeting where you will meet me, I will meet you, and we’ll share some of ourselves as a group to further the goal of building qesher, of raising ourselves up in the context of community.

Some of the ideas that have surfaced at these meetings we are already putting into place. Many of you attended the instrumental service that I led here with several musical partners a few Friday evenings ago. More than 200 of us learned some new melodies, sang joyously, and considered the Jewish value of compassion; it was really quite moving. We will be doing that again on October 23rd, and ideally every fourth Friday night of the month thereafter. We will be having more Shabbat dinners as well, paired with upbeat, Carlebach-style Kabbalat Shabbat services. We will step up our social action activities. And there will be more.

Another new vehicle for building qesher is the New Members’ Welcoming Ceremony, which we will be hosting in coming months for those that have recently joined our congregation. On that day we will incorporate our newest members by giving each of them the opportunity to hold a sefer Torah, visibly demonstrating how we can all take hold of our tradition. Judaism is not something that the rabbi does for you; it’s yours to take hold of, and we will be finding ways to lower the bar to participation.

And we are launching yet another new, engaging way to connect. We don’t even have a name for it yet, but we will be reaching out beyond the synagogue walls to host a series of discussions in people’s homes, led by a group of ideally ten members with whom I will be personally working. So it goes like this: I meet with my ten scholar/facilitators, discuss a Jewish topic with them, and then they go off to discussions hosted by some of you in your living room to discuss the same material. The goal is to engage far more people, some of whom may not even be members of Beth Shalom, in making Jewish values and text relevant to who we are today. (If you have an idea for what to call this, or if you want to lead or host, please let me know!)

The true holiness to be found in synagogues, in being here today, is not in the celebration of an ancient ritual, of the welcoming of 5776, of the opening of the Book of Life. Those things are all important, but they are not the essential reasons that we are gathered here today.

The most important reason that we are together today is community. We are here to be with each other, to be a part of something big, to connect with our heritage. To grasp our tradition.

Because let’s face it, people. We need this. Not Rosh Hashanah. Not “shul,” per se. Not the wonderful lunch that you’re going to have in an hour or so. But each other. Together, we make part of a whole, a connection with our past, our ancestors, our tradition, our Torah. And you can’t find that on your smartphone. You can’t buy it on Amazon. You can’t get it with vanilla syrup and steamed milk at Starbucks.

The holiness to be found in connection and community can only be acquired right here, with your fellow Jews.

As we celebrate the start of 5776, as we begin this 10-day journey of cleansing, of spiritual inventory-taking and ultimately atonement, we should take note of each other. We are all here together at this moment, but that does not mean that when we leave this room that we are no longer inter-connected. On the contrary – we will share these bonds when we leave the building as well. And even if many of us do not see each other for a whole year, until we gather again for the beginning of the year 5777 (whoa…), we will continue to be connected to each other, and ideally to draw more of us into our qehillah circle.

I am very much looking forward to hearing your stories: what it means for you to be Jewish, what powerful Jewish experiences you have had, how you see yourself connected to Beth Shalom or the Pittsburgh Jewish community or the entire Jewish world, and, most importantly, what action items might inspire you to help us build an even more engaged, more vibrant community.

At our Selihot evening discussion last week, we spoke about understanding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as being about spiritual yearning, about the closeness of God at this time and our desire for a revelatory encounter with God.

Just after we heard the shofar this morning, we chanted the line (Ps. 89:16):

אַשְׁרֵי הָעָם, יֹדְעֵי תְרוּעָה; ה’, בְּאוֹר-פָּנֶיךָ יְהַלֵּכוּן

Ashrei ha’am yode’ei teru’ah, Adonai be’or panekha yehalekhun.

Joyous are the people who know the calling of the shofar; Adonai, they walk by the light of Your presence.

Why are we joyous for having swooned to the sound of the shofar? The Hasidic Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Efraim of Sudilkov, a grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov who lived in the latter half of the 18th century, saw this line as being essential to the entire enterprise of Rosh Hashanah.

He taught (in his work Degel Mahaneh Efraim), that the sound of the shofar breaks open our awareness on these days, opening us up to our penimiut, our true spiritual inwardness. And inside these depths, buried within our mundane reality, we find the radiance of God’s holy name, glowing within us.

We are the yode’ei teru’ah, those who intimately know the shofar’s call. And this deep familiarity inspires us to seek that encounter, that breaking of the external to get to the light hidden within, to reach the Divine spark found within each of us. That is what happens when we hear the sound of the shofar.

But you can’t do that at home, alone; you can only do it with your community. The shofar unites us on this day to uncover that internal radiance. This verse describes us all in both plural and singular:

Ashrei ha’am = Happy is the nation (singular, i.e. one people)

Yode’ei teru’ah = Those who know the shofar’s call (plural, i.e. individuals)

American culture highlights the power of “one,” of the individual; our tradition speaks to the power of “us.” What makes the shofar moment work is that we are all together, that we stand together, joined as one nation, one “am,” to listen for that sound that opens us up. We share this together as individuals, personally connected to one another, and also as a community. This is the qedushah found in that moment of shofar.

It’s a new year. It’s 5776. And we are all going to get to know each other. We are going to seek those holy moments together. We are going to open up together. We are going to pray together, to sing together, to weep together, to dance, to celebrate, to learn, to share stories, to eat, and on and on. We are going to break open those tough, exterior shells to get to the inner radiance that we share. That is how we will build qesher / personal connection and qehillah / community; the qedushah / holiness will follow in spades.

And, to that end, I am going to suggest a small “action item,” one that I hope will help us in the building of qesher and qehillah on Yom Kippur: Wear a white outfit. I know that some of you  already do this, and I will obviously be wearing white. But the tradition of wearing white on YK is not just for the rabbi and cantor. It’s for everybody! It’s a symbol of purity: the purity of the soul that we seek as individuals and as a community during these ten days of teshuvah, of repentance. Yes, I know that the custom is to dress in nice clothes for synagogue. But don’t worry about that so much! YK is not about your nicest, cleanest suit! It’s about your nicest, cleanest soul. It does not have to be a kittel or a robe – anything white will do. I hope that some of you will join me in participating in this symbolic gesture next Wednesday, and that it will connect more of us to each other and our tradition as we raise the bar of community and qedushah.

Shanah tovah!

* Apologies if the “q” seems strange. One way of representing the Hebrew letter ק (qof) in English transliteration is q, because (as you can readily see if you look at them right next to each other) the Latin q is actually related to the Hebrew ק. (The Latin “k” comes from the Hebrew כ (kaf).) By transliterating this way, it helps English speakers learn or remember the Hebrew spelling of the transliterated word.


Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, first day of Rosh Hashanah, 9/14/2015.)


Filed under High Holidays, Sermons

United We Stand (Against the Yetser Hara) – Ki Tetse 5775

I was asked a very important question last week at kiddush. So important, in fact, that it became the basis of today’s derashah.

I’ll come back to the question itself, but first, let me give you the context. Those of you who were here last week may recall that I spoke about the future, about building this community, about tradition and change (and particularly the “change” part of that equation). I suggested three basic principles for moving forward:

  • to ask good questions about why we do what we do, and not to accept “Because we’ve always done it that way!” as an answer;
  • to be open, that is, open to new people coming in and joining us, and even to seeking them out to invite them in; and
  • to think in terms of the relationships that we build here as a community, rather than merely programmatically.

Many of you responded favorably to the ideas that I presented, and I am happy about that. (If you were not here, please note that you can read the sermon on my blog: themodernrabbi.com, but please note that it’s always better live!)

At kiddush afterwards, a couple of members pulled me aside and asked (I’m paraphrasing here), “Rabbi what are you going to do to heal the rifts between members of the congregation?” To unpack this question a bit, I will have to assume that it was precipitated by the sermon – that is, “OK, it’s nice to talk about change and building community. But in order to do so, we must first be able to get along with each other. What are you going to do about that?”

One of the foundations of the very idea of a kehillah, a congregation, is that we have some commonalities. We must at the very least get along with each other, but we should also have some principles to which we all agree. In our case here at Beth Shalom, some of those principles are the guiding values of Conservative Judaism: a positive, historical approach to halakhah and Jewish life; an acceptance of contemporary authority in our Jewish choices; a commitment to egalitarianism, the idea that women and men are understood to be equal with respect to Jewish law and ritual; a willingness to engage with modernity and not isolate ourselves, to make choices and changes that are respectful of tradition and yet sensitive to where we are and who we are today.

But let’s face it: even if we agree on these values, that does not mean that we all agree about everything. In fact, as one of my teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Bill Lebeau, taught us, the synagogue in which everybody agrees about everything and there are no political divisions is a dying shul.

There is a classic story that I am sure some of you know and love, the one about the congregation where they can’t agree whether to stand or sit during the Shema. Half stand, half sit, and they are arguing with each other in a particularly non-decorous manner. They resolve to go to find the oldest living member of the congregation, Mr. Goldberg, to find out what the original custom was. He is in an assisted living facility, lying in bed, and a group of congregants descends on him.

“Mr. Goldberg,” says a stander, “It was always the tradition to stand during Shema, right?”

Goldberg says nothing, seems to stare off into space.

“Mr. Goldberg,” says a sitter, “We always sat for Shema, correct?”

Goldberg still does not react.

The synagogue president comes forward. “Mr. Goldberg, you have to help us. Right now, half are standing, half are sitting, and all are yelling at each other.”

Goldberg’s face lights up. He raises his hand with a flourish. “That’s the tradition!” he says.

Disagreement has been the Jewish tradition for at least two millennia; it is the basis of most discussions in the Talmud. In fact, you might make the case that it is exactly Judaism’s tradition of diversity of opinion which has enabled us to survive for these thousands of years, since the Romans destroyed the second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Had we not moved from a tradition of hierarchical, regimented, centralized sacrificial worship during Temple times to the more democratic mode of teaching, learning, and personal fulfillment of ritual, we may have simply disappeared when the center was destroyed. But we are still here, and where are the Romans?

We may argue, or not see eye-to eye, or we may not even like each other. But it is essential, for the good of this congregation, the wider Jewish community, and the world at large that we treat each other respectfully, even as we disagree. In fact, it is an imperative of rabbinic Judaism to do so.

We learn in the Talmud (Shabbat 127a)

אלו דברים שאדם עושה אותם ואוכל פירותיהן בעולם הזה והקרן קיימת לו לעולם הבא, ואלו הן: כיבוד אב ואם וגמילות חסדים והבאת שלום שבין אדם לחברו ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם

These are the deeds that yield immediate fruit and continue to yield fruit in the world to come: honoring parents; doing deeds of lovingkindness; and bringing peace between people; but the study of Torah outweighs them all.

Among the holiest tasks we can perform is to create peace bein adam lehavero, between each other. And that is something that we must all pursue.

Even greater than that, Parashat Ki Tetse speaks to the power of togetherness. The 20th-century Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, observed that there is one place in Ki Tetse where the text refers to the Israelites as going out to war as a troop (Heb: mahaneh; Deut. 23:10):

כִּי-תֵצֵא מַחֲנֶה, עַל-אֹיְבֶיךָ,  וְנִשְׁמַרְתָּ מִכֹּל דָּבָר רָע

When you go out as a troop against your enemies, be on guard against anything untoward.

While it seems that the Torah is speaking about actual war, the kind fought over territory, Rabbi Berezovsky reads it not as a war between peoples, but the individual war that we all fight against the yetser hara, the evil inclination. So this becomes not an unholy battle with dangerous weapons and blood and death, but a holy battle for control of our souls. It is this battle that we are heading into as we round the halfway point of Elul in our ascent to the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of repentance bracketed by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In this battle for the soul, says the Slonimer Rebbe, we must go out together, united as a troop. We join for the purposes of restoring kedushah, holiness, to our lives. “By losing some of our own identity by subjecting it to the needs of the collective,” he writes, “we are given the hedge against the yetser hara.” He points out that the Talmud (Sanhedrin 39a) suggests that the power of minyan, of a quorum of ten Jews for some ritual purposes, lies in the understanding that when ten of us gather together, the Shekhinah, God’s presence, is there too.

In other words, the Torah is teaching us that united we stand (against the yetser hara), and divided we fall. This is a huge lesson for today, when we live in dramatically independent times.


It is this togetherness that enables us to be a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community. We are a communal people; we need a minyan to attain a particular level of kedushah. How much more so do we need togetherness to achieve kedushah as a community for all our endeavors, for all the things that synagogues do, from running a nursery school to tending to our cemetery to hosting cultural events to having individual conversations with each other in the parking lot. We have to maintain the level of kedushah in all of our activities.

To that end, I have introduced an overarching theme for the upcoming High Holidays: Connection, Community, and Kedushah, which we are representing graphically by the letters CCק. Yes, the holidays are a time to gather with family for meals (and fasting), to seek teshuvah / repentance, to hear some fabulous sermons, etc. But they are also about maintaining our personal connections with each other, gathering as a community, and seeking kedushah / holiness. And these are things that can only take place when we think of ourselves as a united troop, one in which we are connected to each other, giving up (as the Slonimer suggests) a little piece of our own personal independence for the sake of the greater good, the collective.

Now I know, some of you are thinking, “Oh, you naive rabbi. That all sounds so pat. But you really want me to be nice to so-and-so, that lousy (insert epithet here)?”

And the answer is, yes. Yes, you can. Actually, you have to, for the benefit of this congregation.

We are going to build. I am happy to report that I have heard from a number of people in the past two weeks that will be joining Beth Shalom as new members and re-joining veteran members, and that is wonderful. (Is anybody here right now that has just joined or is about to?) And so we will incorporate all of them into our kehillah kedoshah, and know that those of us who are new may not agree with those of us who have been here for a long time. And that’s OK, just as long as we treat each other with respect, in public and in private. We would not want to give the yetser hara a foothold.

Really, we’re not going to agree. And you don’t have to like everybody. But we all have to be civil and respectful to each other. Not doing so is NOT OK. Everybody here is welcome.

Remember that it is diversity of opinion that has enabled us to survive, along with our willingness to stick together. Let’s increase our diversity, and work together to continue to build.

Shabbat shalom!


Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/29/2015.)


Filed under Sermons